Writing as a Spiritual Habit
Everyone must write. Not for money, fame, or notoriety. Most professional writers know none of these things. I want you to write for deeper and more existential reasons.
I’m an evangelist for the writing craft. Not because I’ve made a New York Times list, I haven’t. Not because I’ve written seventeen books and published articles and made a few bucks, I have. And not because writing is a necessary skill to be applied in most disciplines, vocations, and life.
I want people to write for a more integrated and whole life. Writing helps us move from living on the surface, to going to the depths of who we are, and why we do what we do.
Spiritual writer Henri Nouwen said writing can untangle thoughts, express our emotions, and give artistic expression to life. Writing is a spiritual habit:
“Writing can be a true spiritual discipline. Writing can help us to concentrate, to get in touch with the deeper stirrings of our hearts, to clarify our minds, to process confusing emotions, to reflect on our experiences, to give artistic expression to what we are living, and to store significant events in our memories. Writing can also be good for others who might read what we write.
Quite often a difficult, painful, or frustrating day can be “redeemed” by writing about it. By writing we can claim what we have lived and thus integrate it more fully into our journeys. Then writing can become lifesaving for us and sometimes for others too.”
Writing in the modern world has become utilitarian. A useful tool to take or leave. The craft a pragmatic exercise only necessary for getting published or making money. We write and craft articles and books and blogs to soothe our “ideal” audiences ear. We only write what we think people might like, what is bound to get clicks, or make a few bucks.
Writing just an extra to the real stuff of life.
Writing has also become a tool reserved for a certain qualified group and not available to the masses. Henri Nouwen argues writing is much more. It’s a spiritual discipline and habit necessary for dealing with pain, sorrow, and the confusing world in which we live.
The Christian Church celebrates Advent this month remembering the coming of the Messiah into the world as a baby. Not only to remember this miraculous and history altering event, but to wait in expectation of the Messiah’s return, to heal our broken lives, and restore our fractured world.
But with the routine of sex scandals, political foolishness, school shootings, shootings in the streets, fires in the hills, and not to mention our own pain of living under the sun, we could use some good news.
Writing can be a gift for dealing with the unknown and pain of our souls. Writing can be an act of faith in the midst of the mystery of God and life and us. It can be the catalyst for untangling our thoughts, emotions, and ideas. I’m an evangelist for writing because it helps me live a more integrated life.
The Real Ryan can be expressed in journals and notebooks the world will never see. An uncut and unedited version. Glimpses of the Real Ryan can be shared in articles and books. But I write not for monetary gain or notoriety. I’d have quit long ago.
I write to make sense of me, others, our world, and figure out why things constantly go wrong. How to live considering God, neighbor, and creation when it seems to go well, and horribly bad. But mostly I write for me because I know me better than anyone else. I’m the problem in the universe most days. I’m laying all these things out on the table and saying: this is who I am today.
Again, these thoughts and frustrations are under lock and key in notebooks and journals. For me, and God. Maybe my kid’s when I die.
But I’ve found the habit of writing more spiritual than I’d expected. More of a mystery between man and God. When I type and write longhand I’m doing it before God. It’s me, the real me, with whatever questions, fears, doubts, pain, and joys in my heart.
The closer I can get to being the true and honest self the better chance I have of becoming whole. I will never be whole this side of heaven, but the closer I can get to the true self, and not the imposter, faker, and trying to please others self, the better. Writing helps me do this. It’s often a release valve redeeming my thoughts and days.
When I write nonfiction I’m exploring what I think about an idea. Writing a book is teaching my conclusions on the idea (more accurately, teaching my starting points on an idea). This doesn’t mean I’m an expert, or anyone for that matter. There’s always more to say and angles to bring to the table. But the process of writing untangles the thoughts and ideas swirling in my brain.
How about fiction? I write fiction because without fail a theme arises from the prose. I don’t do a ton of plotting and planning. I let the characters say and do what they need to do. Another reason I don’t rewrite my stuff to death. I want the voice to be my voice in time and space. Not what I think good writing sounds like or mimicking someone else. I have to trust the subconscious and creative and spiritual side of me to write the story.
Back to themes. My first novel was about dealing with the death of our daughter, but didn’t realize it until I was done. My second book was dealing with family dysfunction growing up. Third, was about racial injustice.
None of these novels started with the idea: let’s talk about death, or jacked up families, or racism. It came because that was in my heart. I didn’t have answers when writing the books and still don’t. But writing as a spiritual habit helped untangle the pain inside these real circumstances and situations.
Writing is a gift from God for dealing with our true selves. Open a journal, grab a piece of paper, or fire up the laptop. Write.
In the writing we can deal with ourselves and the world in hopefully more healthy and whole ways. The written word need not be a weapon to bludgeon others. It can be a safe place between you and the Creator to deal with the stuff that matters to you.
As Nouwen said. Maybe we’ll “redeem” our bad days and good days and everything in between.
What are you going to write today?